One state in particular has a cult following and you can see their state flag throughout the world. What state is that you ask? It is Colorado.  But when you see their flag, it isn’t only flying high next to a bunch of other flags. It is on people’s hats, shirts, hoodies, socks, bikinis… You get the point. So why is the symbol on the state flag so popular, yet Missouri’s flag not so much?

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Colorado did not launch in 1876 with a brand strategy and a viral video. They didn’t have a strategy to be known as a state for people with an affinity for active and free lifestyles. They have bike lanes everywhere. When you climb a mountain, you won’t be greeted with warning signs or stairways with safety railings. Colorado even has park rangers who tell you things like: “Good luck, and make sure you get back down from up there. 12 have already died this year.” But they don’t tell you not to go. That’s because there’s an inherent sense of freedom and adventure present in the Colorado brand.

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What I love about the Colorado brand is the fact that it emerged organically, and was embraced by those whose ideals and passions aligned with the identity it conveyed. There was never an official branding campaign, or even a logo that represented the state. In fact, it was Colorado’s flag, which was adopted in 1964, that became the state’s visual identity. Over the years, it’s become a fashion icon. I see people all over the country donning their Colorado apparel, and it always ends up resulting in immediate conversation and a connection with some stranger you didn’t know 60 seconds prior. You’re bonded because of the brand. That’s a powerful thing – something that marketers strive for. Yet marketers didn’t create all this, but they did try to interfere with it a few years ago…

Back in 2013, some misguided government officials declared that the brand of Colorado needed to be “fixed.” Too many people were running around, putting the flag all over their clothes, and representing the state in their own way. They felt they needed to control the brand, and define it in a very formal and corporate way. The state’s chief marketing officer, Aaron Kennedy (who incidentally was also the founder of Noodles & Co.) was quoted as saying: “We have a state flag and seal, but until now Colorado has never had a unified brand.”

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So he and the governor embarked on a lengthy and costly campaign to define and launch a new brand, approaching it like it was the debut of a new Apple product. They focused on the active lifestyle, but didn’t account for the sense of freedom and adventure the mountains, trails, and numerous outdoor opportunities the state inspires – which is a key component of what the state’s natural brand advocates are devoted to and inspired by.

Were people excited about the newly defined brand and logo?

Not exactly.  What Kennedy and the others failed to acknowledge was that Colorado DID have a unified brand already. The existing brand loyalists saw the rebranding effort as an organized campaign to define what was cool, and prescribe to them what the state’s identity was going to be. But because the public had already defined the brand, they were hanging on to their definition while rejecting the definition that was created for them (which was presented complete with new brand standards manual and all). This wasn’t going to fly for an audience that embraces freedom. In fact, the pushback from the public resulted in the icon from the Colorado flag showing up on even more items. One could argue that the state, having created a competing identity for itself, now holds even less control over its brand.

So what is a brand to do? As you can see changing brands is always hard, we recently tackled the subject of letting go of your own brand. But in this case the public has embraced the organic brand and the public had not been a part of this effort. So it was not embraced.

At Kolbeco we say quit fighting and let the organic brand develop. Embrace it and let it live. By trying to change and define the brand they actually organically accomplished that.

Article written by

partner/marketing strategist/climber of mountains